Even Superman Can't Save Us

09/21/2010 05:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the next few days and weeks you are going to be hearing a lot about a film called Waiting for Superman. It's directed by Davis Guggenheim, who made An Inconvenient Truth, and its focus is school reform. More precisely it focuses on how certain charter schools are providing new and different opportunities for low-income kids, but are being fought and bad-mouthed every step of the way by established interests content with a miserable status quo.

Sound simplistic? Well it is, but the film is an effective vehicle for its powerful message, even if it paints in black and white issues that are decidedly gray. To be fair to the movie, it does not do what some of its critics in the teachers' unions say. It is not a "teacher-bashing" movie. Guggenheim goes out of his way to point out there are great teachers in most every school. So don't buy the anti-movie propaganda from the usual suspects.

Across the country, advocacy groups that endorse the Obama-Duncan style of education reform are gearing home for a huge publicity and advocacy blitz to promote the film. Heck, it was featured on Oprah yesterday. That alone practically guarantees boffo box office.

Groups pushing the film believe that Waiting for Superman provides them with an unprecedented opportunity to advocate for accelerated reforms, even as a backlash builds against those reforms. Expect titanic clashes through October between proponents and critics of the film's message.

Which side are you on? Here's a cheat sheet. If you believe that public education in this country is in need of major change, particularly in cities, and that change has to come primarily from external forces, then you will probably like Waiting for Superman.

If, on the other hand, you believe that educators are better positioned than anyone else to make the needed changes, and what they need first and foremost are more resources to implement those changes, you will probably hate the movie.

Lost amid the sturm und drang surrounding Waiting for Superman is The Lottery, a movie that explores the same themes, even focuses on some of the same characters. And it may well be a better movie. It opened last spring, in extremely limited release (Denver was one of four cities where it showed, briefly).

The Lottery, the first film by 27-year-od Madeleine Sackler, follows four families as they try to get their kids into Harlem Success Academy charter schools in Manhattan. Like Waiting for Superman, Sackler's film has a clear point of view. But The Lottery sparks outrage quietly, and without a hint of didacticism.

Sackler lets the four families tell their own stories. She treats them with dignity and respect. The camera tells hard truths - one little girl's home is so devoid of sensory stimuli that it's no surprise she cannot read - but remains non-judgmental.

If The Lottery doesn't make you tear up a time or two, then you're harder-hearted than I.

The filmmaker stays far in the background, whereas in Superman, Guggenheim at times makes himself a central character.

I attended a conference at The Aspen Institute last week where Sackler was one of the featured speakers. She is utterly without pretense, and makes no claims to be an education expert. But the act of making the movie sparked outrage in her, and, she says, made education her new passion.

Some critics have dinged The Lottery for being one-sided. There are interviews with Joel Klein and Geoffrey Canada, but no representative from any teachers' union appears on camera. New York Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum speaks for charter skeptics in the film, but much of what she says sounds ill-informed, almost nonsensical, and she looks like the camera gives her gas.

Sackler said she made the movie she was able to make. She wanted a more balanced film, but could not get any teachers' union representative to appear on camera. She tried for over a year to get an interview with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Ultimately, even Weingarten's spokespeople refused to go on camera. So she proceeded to make the best movie she could with what she had.

Guggenheim's bigger, higher-profile production succeeded in getting face time with Weingarten. But the brief clips of her interview struck me as the most disingenuous moments in Waiting for Superman. Weingarten was shot in unflattering light and from bad angles, making her look every bit the villain she actually isn't. She hails from the more reasonable wing of a movement that has gone badly off the rails, so treating her shabbily strikes me as counterproductive.

During her talk at the Aspen conference, Sackler synthesized in a couple of sentences one of the ongoing school reform debates. Some people, she said, argue that you cannot fix schools until you fix poverty. After spending time in urban schools and with the families subjected to them, it became clear to her that the opposite is true. And that fact seems so simple and obvious to her that she seemed puzzled that people continue arguing over this issue.

I don't see it quite that way. If only it were that simple. The fact of the matter is both sides are right. You can't fix poverty without fixing schools but you can't fix schools without fixing poverty either. And with the political system so seized up that it imperils our society, no one can muster much will to do anything on a large scale about either interlocked challenge.

And so we slide downhill. No movie alone can fix that.